What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire?

Sudhir Venkatesh has become pretty well known in these parts as an authority on the inner workings of criminal street gangs. His new book is out tomorrow; but today, here’s a great post from him about watching “The Wire” with some of the kind of guys who are portrayed in it.

Ever since I began watching HBO’s The Wire, I felt that the show was fairly authentic in terms of its portrayal of modern urban life – not just the world of gangs and drugs, but the connections between gangland and City Hall, the police, the unions, and practically everything else. It certainly accorded with my own fieldwork in Chicago and New York. And it was much better than most academic and journalistic reportage in showing how the inner city weaves into the social fabric of a city.

Last year, I learned a lot by watching a few episodes of The Wire with gang leaders in Chicago. So, a few weeks ago, I called a few respected street figures in the New York metro region to watch the upcoming fifth season. I couldn’t think of a better way to ensure quality control.

For the first episode, we gathered in the Harlem apartment of Shine, a 43-year-old half Dominican, half African-American man who managed a gang for fifteen years before heading to prison for a ten-year drug trafficking sentence. I invited older guys like Shine, most of whom had retired from the drug trade, because they would have greater experience with rogue cops, political toughs, and everyone else that makes The Wire so appealing. They affectionately named our gathering “Thugs and ‘Cuz.” (I was told that the “‘cuz” – short for “cousin” – was for me.)

There was plenty of popcorn, ribs, bad domestic beer, and fried pork rinds with hot sauce on hand. The pork rinds, apparently the favorite of the American thug, ran out so quickly that one of the low-ranking gang members in attendance was dispatched to acquire several more bags.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty summary of the evening’s highlights:

1. The Bunk is on the take. Much to my chagrin (since he is my favorite character), the consensus in the room was that the Bunk was guilty. In the words of Shine, “He’s too good not to be profiting. I got nothing against him! But he’s definitely in bed with these street [thugs].” Many had known of Bunk’s prowess as a detective from past episodes. The opening scene, in which he craftily obtains a confession, reinforced their view that the Bunk is too good not to be hiding something.

2. Prediction No. 1: McNulty and the Bunk will split. The observation regarding Bunk’s detective work led to a second agreement, namely that McNulty or Bunk will be taken down – shot, arrested, or killed. This was closely tied to the view that McNulty and Bunk will come into conflict. The rationale? Everyone felt that Marlo, Proposition Joe, or another high-ranking gang leader must have close (hitherto unexplained) ties with one of these two detectives. “Otherwise,” Kool-J, an ex-drug supplier from Northern New Jersey, observed, “there ain’t no way they could be meeting in a Holiday Inn!” Orlando, a Brooklyn based ex-gang leader, believed the ambitions of Bunk and McNulty would run into each other. “One of them will be taken down. Either the white boy gets drunk and shoots some [guy] ’cause he’s so pissed, or Bunk gives him up to solve a case!”

3. The greatest uproar occurred when the upstart Marlo challenged the veteran Prop Joe in the co-op meeting. “If Prop Joe had balls, he’d be dead in 24 hours!” Orlando shouted. “But white folks [who write the series] always love to keep these uppity [characters] alive. No way he’d survive in East New York more than a minute!” A series of bets then took place. All told, roughly $8,000 was wagered on the timing of Marlo’s death. The bettors asked me – as the neutral party – to hold the money. I delicately replied that my piggy bank was filled up already.

4. Carcetti is a fool. Numerous observers commented on the Baltimore Mayor’s lack of “juice” and experience when it came to working with the feds. The federal police, in their opinion, love to come in and disrupt local police investigations by invoking the federal racketeering (“RICO”) statutes as a means of breaking up drug-trafficking rings. “When feds bring in RICO, local guys feel like they got no [power],” Tony-T explained, offering some empathy to local police who get neutered during federal busts. “White boy [a.k.a. Carcetti], if he knew what he was doing, would keep them cops on Marlo just long enough to build a case – then he would trade it to the feds to get what he wanted.” Others chimed in, saying that the writers either didn’t understand this basic fact, or they wanted to portray Carcetti as ignorant.

The evening ended with a series of additional wagers: Tony-T accepted challenges to his claim that Bunk dies by the end of the season; Shine proposed that Marlo would kill Prop Joe; the youngest attendee, the 29-year-old Flavor, placed $2,500 on Clay Davis escaping indictment and revealing his close ties with Marlo.

I felt obliged to chime in: I wagered $5 that the circulation of the Baltimore Sun will double, attracting a takeover by Warren Buffet by Episode 4. No one was interested enough to take my bet. Stay tuned.

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  1. N.C. says:

    One thing I’m curious about: are Shine & co. long-time fans who have seen the previous seasons, or was this their first exposure to the show?

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  2. Josh says:

    I disagree with #4. The FBI doesn’t care about innercity crack use. They’re much more concerned with terrorism at the moment.

    As McNulty’s brother said in a previous season, unless Osama’s in East Baltimore, the feds couldn’t care less.

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  3. smperk says:

    Awesome. This is the kind of stuff I love reading about. Keep it up!

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  4. Tim says:

    Stringer Bell, the moneyman for the Barksdale drug gang in Season One, is taking a Microeconomics course during Season One. (I believe he got an A.)

    In the third season, the drug gang’s heroin product is less robust, and the junkies start buying from the competition and business suffers. At a meeting of his drug sellers, Stringer uses the themes he learned in Microeconomics: “What you’re thinking is that we have an inelastic product here. But what we have here is an elastic product.” He later asks his professor what the best recourse is when attempting to sell an inferior product. Stringer employs the professor’s advice: he changes the name of the product a la Altria.

    More economics principles found in the series can be found at this web site:

    http://notsneaky.blogspot.com/2007/05/economics-of-wire.html

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  5. Brian Lindenmuth says:

    This is a great post and in the wave of write ups appearing this has one of the more unique perspectives.

    I do think that in alot of ways Baltimore as a market (whether we are talking TV, radio, sports, crime) is small and forgotten. It exists in an almost isolated state. The reason is most likley geographic considering the proximity to Philly and NY. I’m not too sure that the Feds are or would have in the past swooped in and invoked RICO because of its market size.

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  6. RDL says:

    If they’d watched the last season they’d know that Marlo is far more murderous than Prop Joe, and Joe is afraid of him. They’ve been in a rough entente so far because of the sharp geographic divide between East and West Baltimore, but as was discussed at the meeting, Joe on the east is the one getting pressed by Johns Hopkins development. I predict Joe is going to get it, not Marlo.

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  7. Jay says:

    ask a Baltimore Dude I say. Meaning me,

    The characters are as real as they come, Prop Joe is a business man first and is about the big picture. Marlo only want’s to control the streets which will catch up to him in the end, it always does (i.e) The goal of hustling is to get out the game not to control It , we learned that from Stringer Bell…Quote from Mcnulty and Bodie “The game is rigged”….And the loudest one in the room is usally the weakest…Watch out for Chris the Zombie Man.

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  8. Lexi says:

    I’d be curious about what they have to say about the t.v. show Dexter.

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